Saturday, 27 December 2014

Christopher Nolan has outdone himself once again


Interstellar
2014 (Christopher Nolan) 9/10
Legendary Pictures
 
Interstellar Poster - Miller's World

I didn't really intend on posting movie reviews on my blog namely because there are so many movies out there that I did not want to crowd them out of other things that I could be writing about. Anyway, like everything else, I do write my thoughts about all the the movies that I watch up on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), not that I really spend all that much time watching movies anymore. Secondly, I consider a lot of movies to be little more than entertainment with little in the way of deep themes, however once in a while a film will come along that I feel that the 1000 word limit on IMDB simply does not allow me to fully explore the film at hand. Interstellar is certainly one of those films, and I feel it also makes a worthy addition to my previous post where I looked at Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History ofTime. However, before I explore the themes in this film, I'll say a few things about the film itself.

Synopsis

I'll try not to reveal too much here, and I should also warn you that in the later part of this post there will be a number of spoilers. If you are reading this to determine whether you should watch this film or not, my simple answer is yes, you should, because it is certainly well worth the three hours that it will take from your life. Anyway, the film is set in the future where the Earth is becoming ever less habitable. The world is struck by ever more severe dust storms and disease and many of the crops have long since vanished. It seems as if humanity's days are numbered. Just in time a wormhole is discovered near Saturn so a handful of humans are sent off in a spaceship to travel beyond the wormhole to attempt to discover a habitable planet that humanity can colonise and thus begin again.

Art and Direction

I normally don't talk about what I call the 'nuts and bolts' of film making because those aspects really don't interest me. Anyway, others have already said plenty about this masterpiece of film making on IMDB and all I can say is that I absolutely agree with them. Nolan has certainly exceeded his expectations as a film maker and created a film that will go down as a work of art. This is not surprising since many of us have already seen his Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception, however Interstellar seems to have taken him to a new level.

Matthew McCoCounaughey has never really been an actor that has caught my attention, and prior to seeing this film I was a little sceptical with him playing the lead role, however within the first fifteen minutes my doubts were simply blown away. The way he takes the character of Cooper, especially the struggle between him wanting to be an engineer (and wanting his children to follow in his footsteps), and the necessity of him being a farmer really created depth to his character, and the way he stood out from the other big name actors such as John Lithgow, Michael Caine, and Matt Damon has clearly demonstrated that he certainly has matured in his acting ability.

The one thing about the film making that really stood out is the brilliant use of the soundtrack. The sound, and the music, were merged so well into the film that it literally became a living work of art. Nolan has certainly taken the idea of the film out of the the realm of base entertainment and into the world of art.

Spoiler Alert


The Gravity/Time Correlation

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking It is interesting that I have recently finished reading Hawking's book 'A brief History of Time' because, even though Hawking is never mentioned in the film, having a better understanding of modern physics helped me see aspects of the story much more clearly than I would have if I had not read it. For instance, Hawking talks about unified physics though we have yet to reconcile gravitational force with the other forces in the universe. However it is interesting to note (and this comes out in Einstein) how gravity and time appear to be related. This is something that regularly comes out in Interstellar, namely the relationship between time and gravity. This is clearly seen with regards to the black hole: the closer you get to the gravitational distortion, the slower time goes relative to yourself. Where they only spend an hour on 'Miller's Planet', twenty three years have passed on Earth, to the point that it is believed that the mission has become a failure. This relationship becomes even more relevant near the end of the movie where Cooper passes through the event horizon of the black hole and into the singularlity. Granted, much of this is poetic license, and also a form of Deus Ex Machina, however Nolan has extrapolated this correlation to suggest that where we get to a point where gravity is infinite (such as the singularity) one can actually step outside of time and see all points in history at once (though one must remember that since Cooper is still a human who exists in three dimensional time, he was still limited in what he could see or do, which was why the tesseract was created).

The other thing that I note with this correlation is that gravity is the only force that does not have an equal and opposite force – all gravity does is attract (that is it sucks): it does not repel in the same way that the other forces do. The same is the case with time – it only ever goes forward – it does not stop, nor does it go backward. The funny thing is that many of us consider time to be a dimension (and it is even stated with certainty in the film that time is a dimension). However, having spoken to my Dad (who is a theoretical physicist), this may not be the case. As far as he is concerned, time is not a dimension in the same way that the three dimensions that we exist within are dimensions, and thus we cannot understand time in the same way (though time is used in equations, such as velocity being distance by time). However, let us consider something else (and I will leave it at that because I am not really able to go any deeper), what if time is not a dimension, but a force, a force that relentlessly propels us into the future. Maybe that is why there is a correlation between gravity and time – they are both forces that act upon each other.

Tyranny of Distance

A World Out of Time by Larry Niven Many of the ideas that have come out in Interstellar have been explored previously, which is not surprising considering that there is really 'nothing new under the sun'. The idea of the 'Tyranny of Distance' is a term that is often referred to in Australia where it can take at least a day to travel from one urban centre to another by car. Even in today's society where there is almost instantaneous communication around the world, us Australians still live in a land where there is really 'nothing close'.

However, when we take this to the world of science-fiction this concept changes dramatically. On Earth this tyranny has held us hostage simply through distance, however if we go back a couple of hundred years we can get an idea of the difficulties that space travel would offer us today. When the first British colonists first arrived in Australia it took them six months to arrive, which meant that a round trip would take a year. If one wanted to send a message from the Foreign Office in London it would take a year for them to receive a response. Moreso, these delays would even occur during war because Prime Minister Pitt of England did not hear about the victory at Trafalgar until 6th November, two weeks after the battle was fought.

We see this tyranny played out again and again in Interstellar. Despite the Earth being on its last legs, it will still take the explorers two years to reach the Wormhole, and once they are on the other side the ability to communicate becomes even more difficult. Take note of the events on 'Miller's Planet' where they are receiving a regular communication that the planet is habitable, however when they arrive on the surface they discover that time has become so distorted that they do not discover the true nature of the planet until it is too late. As it happened, Miller was only able to get out a single message before his ship was destroyed, yet due to the distortion, that for every hour spent on the planet, seven years passes in normal space, the message that comes out is little more than a feedback loop.

Blast from the Past movie poster
I have read a similar book that deals with this tyranny in space called A World Out of Time by Larry Niven. This book explores the relationship between time and distance and how by taking ourselves out of time we take ourselves out of the gradual change in society, so that when we return we discover that we have returned to an unknown world. The protagonist in this book believed that if he froze himself in chryostasis he could in a way cheat death by waiting until a future time when technology had advanced to a point where they could not only revive him but also cure him of his disease. He was woken up, only to discover that the world that he had known had radically changed. Consider the example of a person who goes into a coma in the 1960s and is woken up in 2014. How much would have changed for that person who had effectively skipped 50 years? Would it not be the case that society had advanced to a point where this person would effectively be an alien?


Loneliness
2001 A Space Odyssey Movie Poster
Probably the best film that I have seen that deals with the loneliness and vastness of space would be 2001 A Space Odyssey. Okay, personally I found this film boring, and when I loudly pronounced that at the film society at my university I was loudly booed out. I still think that is the case, but these days I generally try to keep my opinions to myself amongst a group of people that obviously think otherwise.

However, Interstellar also deals with this issue, and uses the analogy of a round-the-world solo yachtsman. The reason the analogy is used is because the yachtsman is effectively cut off from the rest of the world with the exception of a radio transmitter, and when they land up in trouble, as it can be very difficult to get to them, and even if they can swim, when you are stuck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that is probably going to do you little good.

Apollo 13 Movie PosterThe analogy is a good one because that is also the case when you are travelling in space. You are alone, cut off from the rest of the world with an incredibly hostile atmosphere (or lack of) inches from you. A simple rupture in the hull of the spacecraft can spell doom. This no doubt was also explored in the film Apollo 13.

Yet being out of touch from any human can also be psychologically damaging. We, as humans, need human interaction or else we go mad. We need humans to help steady our moral compass otherwise we loose the distinction of right and wrong. Moreso we crave human interaction, and to be denied that can be incredibly damaging. This idea is clearly played out in Matt Damon's character, Dr Mann. His desire to return to Earth, to return to a world populated by humans where he can once again interact has resulted in him going to extreme lengths, including murder, to get there. Humans were never meant to be alone.

Social Criticism

I will finish this post off by looking at a couple of areas that could be considered to be a criticism of modern society, and that is our treatment of the environment, and the modern education system.

Environmentalism

It is raised very early in the film that the Earth is dying. Many of the staple crops, such as wheat, have been destroyed by a plague known as 'Blight'. The only staple that remains is corn, and even then that is slowly being destroyed. Rain has ceased to fall and the world is plagued by dust storms of ever increasing ferocity. While this is all speculative, it is still noticeable that our environment is degrading. There are reports that the honey bees are dying enmass, which if they were to become extinct would result the the destruction of many plants that we rely on for our food. There is also the debate over climate change, but even without going down that path, it is clear that our rivers and air are being poisoned, and with deforestation dust storms are becoming ever more frequent during droughts as there is nothing to prevent the wind from picking up the top soil and carrying it away, leaving behind parched and infertile paddocks.

The film warns us that if we do not change our ways, if we do not stop living beyond our means, then this future is going to come upon us all to soon. The problem with the world today is that everybody wants to live a first world lifestyle, yet we do not have enough resources for everybody to live that lifestyle. While it is true that food in first world countries is being tossed away by the container load; food that could be used to feed the millions of starving people elsewhere, our demand for electricity and fancy gadgets means that other resources, such as oil, are being depleted at an exorbitant rate. As long as the attitude of economic growth for growth's sake remains entrenched in our social conscience, things are only going to get worse, not just for the people trapped in developing countries, but those of us in the first world as well.


Education

Nolan even touches upon the modern education system, as system that does not actually seem to be producing anything of value anymore. In Interstellar smart people's grades are manipulated so that a university education is prohibitive and many are relegated to being farmers because, well, they need farmers. As such society is not progressing normally. Even the textbooks are being rewritten to deny the moonlanding so that people will not chase fantasies but rather learn to do something practical.

The modern education is very much like that, though it is not necessarily marks that determine somebody's ability to enter university but rather their ability to fund themselves. However there is also a culture that is promoted at university, a culture where people can have fun and socialise, leaving learning to something that you will get around to doing when you have time. I even noticed, when I was at University, that the student union would even offer to lobby a lecturer to raise your grades if you were not happy with them.

To me university is a place of learning, and while I am not one to knock socialising, I still believe that the main reason that we are there is to learn. However, the other problem with university is what is termed the 'cost-benefit analysis'. What we are seeing is a movement away from the liberal arts towards disciplines that are designed for economic growth. One does not go to university to learn, one goes to university to get a degree so that they can get a job and start earning a lot of money. This attitude brings about a decline in the liberal arts, such as humanities, and funding tends to flow mostly towards career related courses. However, despite all of the criticism of American Universities, at least they do insist that their students take non-degree related topics so as to expand their horizons.

I certainly haven't covered all of the ideas in the movie, and the ones that I have I have only touched upon. In fact I feel that I could go on for a lot more exploring ideas such as love also being a force and the gravity equations, however I feel that I have probably said enough about this brilliant film to at least help you think about some of the ideas that come out of it, and maybe spur you on to look deeper (and if you do end up writing a Phd thesis on this film, let me know so I can have a read of it).

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Christopher Nolan has outdone himself once again by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.  
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Thursday, 25 December 2014

Les Miserable - The Dispossessed

Her Majesties Theatre

There are actually a few stories that I can tell you about my experience with this play, one of them involving travelling halfway around the world just so that I could see it (because if the show finished I knew I would end up kicking myself to no end). However, after I had spent the $2000.00 odd dollars on a round-trip ticket to London I then discovered that I was coming to Australia. Mind you, that didn't phase me one bit because I still got to have an awesome holiday in Europe.

Me at Europlaz
I'm not sure if the European Central Bank can be considered a tourist attraction
Honestly, I am not really a big fan of musicals because many of them don't really appeal to me. In fact I can probably count the number of musicals that I have seen on one hand: Wicked, West Side Story, The Wizard of Oz, Spamalot, and of course Les Miserables (which I have seen three times, not counting the movie). I wasn't really all that interested in seeing it until my first trip to London because the posters that dotted the Tube constantly jumped out at me to the point that by the time I was ready to leave I had this strange yearning to see it (much in the same way that I went and saw Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels because I had spent half an hour staring at the poster while waiting for a train in Sydney). So, when the film was released I went and saw it, and after a very teary ending, knew that my goal in life was to go an watch it performed on stage.
Apparently, according to Wikipedia, Les Miserables is the second longest running musical in the world (with a continuous running from October 1984 to October 2014), and the second longest running West End Show (after the Mousetrap). It is also the longest running West End production, with Phantom of the Opera coming in second (I decided not to see that when I was in London because, well, there was plenty of other things to do and musicals are not really all that high on my list - though I would like to see Cats).

Okay, enough of my exploits because one of the reasons that I write is because I love to explore the themes and ideas that come out of the play. Mind you, the first time I saw it I was only focusing on the songs because, well, after watching the movie I really liked the songs and I wanted to see them performed live. However, I feel that that is not really the way to watch a musical - I did the same the second time I saw Wicked and I really didn't enjoy it, but when I saw it a third time I focused instead on the story and ended up getting a lot more out of it.
The songs are still really good, and I still end up singing along as I am watching the play (when I am not bawling my eyes out that is - I always cry when I see this musical). So, this post probably wouldn't be the same without a Youtube video of one of the songs:


One of the things that I can say about Les Miserables (or should I use the Australian title - Les Mis?) is that the plot is not simple. Sure, I heard that it was about how a police officer, Javert, relentlessly pursues an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, and also about how Jean Valjean steals some silverware from a church and the priest then proceeds to hand him the candlesticks claiming that they were a gift. However it is much, much more complex than that, with a love triangle, a failed revolution, the exploits of a gang of thieves, as well as the rescue of a young girl from virtual slavery.
Along with the plot, the story explores numerous concepts such as the nature of revolution, the struggle of the poor in 19th Century France, the nature of mercy, and the tragedy of the relentless pursuit of the law and justice. The title gives a strong hint as to what the play is about. Not knowing French I must once again resort to Wikipedia for a translation (since the English version uses the original French title). It actually has numerous meanings - the miserable ones, the poor ones, or the title that I used for this post, the dispossessed. A part of me thought maybe it means 'the sorrows' however it seems that the word in referring to people as opposed to an abstract noun.

The second time I saw this musical I noticed that much of it was about the misery of the characters. Jean Valjean was trying desperately to turn his life around, but nobody was giving him the opportunity to do so. The only person who actually showed him mercy was the priest, but even then he had to create a new identity to be able to do this, and despite this new identity, he still had the mark of the criminal tattooed to his chest. Then we have Fantine, the mother of Corsette, who is struggling to pay for the upkeep of her daughter, but is constantly harassed by the men at her work, and then forced into prostitution to be able to make ends meet. We also have Eponine, the daughter of the Thenardier's (you know, the two crooks made famous by the song 'Master of the House'), who is in love with Marius, but who's love is not returned. There is also Marius, who must go through the heartbreak of knowing that all of his friends were killed in the failed uprising.
This time the thing that jumped out at me was the nature of revolution. Revolution doesn't seem to come out of the poorer classes, but rather out of the middle class. This is effectively what has happened with most revolutions in history. Successful revolutions generally involve the middle class recruiting the support of the poorer classes so as to effectively change the political structure. The thing is that with revolutions the poor don't actually get anything out of it. It doesn't matter whether they support it or not, they simply go on being poor. This is probably why Marius and his friends were looked on with scorn, since they were described as being 'bourgeoisie slumming it'. The same thing happened during the French revolution. It wasn't the poor revolting against the aristocracy, it was the middle class - the bourgeoisie - who rebelled against the ruling establishment, however the reason that the revolution was successful was because the poorer classes participated.

I think I'll finish this post off here, though there is probably quite a lot more that I could write about with regards to this story. There is also the book, which is huge (and I am sure that one day I might end up reading it, but since there is a lot of other books that I wish to read first, this one sinks to the bottom of the pile - anyway it might end up spoiling the play, despite there being quite a lot more content than what is outlined in the musical), and I am sure to see it again, if it is still showing in London if and when I ever get back there (though the last time I went there I ended up having to book the ticket two months in advance, and managed to get the last seat in the house).

A copy of this post can be found on my Wordpress Site.

Further Reading
A great blog post in the Theology of Les Miserable and our response to the poor. 
A great justification as to why the recent movie wasn't as bad as some people make it out to be.
A brutally honest, and rather hilarious, look at one blogger's favourite parts of the movie (and book). 
An excellent summary of the history behind the revolution at the end of the story.
An interesting post on the person behind the character of Javert.
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Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Carols on the Lawns


Once a year, around Christmas, St Andrews at Reservoir hosts it main community outreach event - Carols on the Lawns. This event is a localised carol service which takes advantage of the warmer summer months by having a sausage sizzle and then gathering on the lawn out the front of the church to sing a number of Christmas Carols, including favourites such as Silent Night, The First Noel, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing (though we are spared the more secular tunes such as Jingle Bells, and Deck the Halls).
It is not just singing carol after carol as short talks, and a few 'Dad Jokes', are thrown in between. What was interesting this year was that Pastor John told us the origin of 'Carols by Candlelight' (thanks to the fountain of wisdom that happens to be Wikipedia). The story goes that a radio announcer was walking home one night when he saw a lady sitting alone in the dark singing carols next to a candle. Understanding that nobody should be alone at Christmas time, he established an event that has since spread around the world (though since Christmas falls during the Australian summer, our climate greatly helps with such an event).
Cooking the Barbeque
Hard at work preparing the Feast
The finished product
 The great thing about having a sausage sizzle beforehand is that people really don't like to turn down a free meal, and the number of people that come to the church simply for that goes to show how effective it can be. Hey, my housemates have always been happy to come along for a bit of a feed, and they even stay around for the carols afterwards. 
Being a family affair, there are always activities available for the children such as face painting. The children at Kid's Church even join in the event, this year creating a some puppets and performing their own puppet show. It helps us understand that church is not just for the adults, with a place to put the children while the adults are doing adult things. Far from it, the children play a significant role within the church family, and by having them participate in the carols helps others see this in action.
Face Painting
Great artists hard at work
Children's show
Great performers of the future
Of course, such an event does not happen over night, there is a lot of planning that goes into it, such as printing and distributing the flyers, setting up the hall, stage managing the production, and of course cooking the food. I'm not sure how many cards were printed, but there certainly was a lot (as it turns out, 5000 flyers were printed, and we had a hundred left over), and even with the huge stack that I took to letter box drop I only managed to scratch the surface of the area that I was wandering around (and that is taking into account that I generally don't put anything into letter boxes that say 'no junk mail'). On Saturday we spent the afternoon decorating the hall, while people were busily preparing supper at home (or simply doing what I do, and that is wander into my local Woolworths and purchase some cakes).
Preparing the plates
Special care goes into stacking these plates.
Putting up the decorations
Sometimes a bit of lateral thinking is required
The finished product
Finally, the hall has been decked
Mind you, when the carols have been sung, and the sun starts to set, it is not the end by any means (and I am not referring to the work required to tidy everything up - though we must remember those who stay back late to do so), because everybody then moves into the hall for a spot of supper. However, that is probably an understatement because once again, this year, another sweet filled feast was laid out for all to enjoy.
Supper Time
Winding down after a hard evening of singing
Supper
A sumptuous feast
However, there is much more to this event than just singing songs, eating sausages, and socialising over a cup of tea (or coffee) and cake, because the whole event is about reminding us and our community about why we celebrate Christmas. It is more than just a few days off work, a big lunch, and ripping paper off of gift wrapped presents: it is about remembering an event that occurred two thousand years ago when a child was born in a back shed and placed into a feeding trough. This baby was no ordinary baby, and despite his humble origins, ignoble death, and poverty, he grew up to become one of the most influential people that our world has ever known. To us, who put on this event, this baby grew up to become Jesus, an man who ended his life on a Roman Cross simply because he challenged the way society thought at the time.
Nativity Scene
A traditional nativity scene
However, he was not a martyr in the ordinary sense, and while he was fully human, he was much, much more. We Christians believe that Jesus is in fact God, coming down to Earth, putting on the flesh of humanity, experiencing the struggles, torments, and sorrows that each and every one of us experience, and then submitting himself to death, and a pretty ignoble death at that, so that our relationship with God may be restored. This was the reason why St Andrews throws this event every year because they desire to proclaim this magnificent event so that the rest of us may hear and understand this great news, and even if we missed out this year, we don't have to wait around until next year to hear the message again because every Sunday, without fail, we all meet at the church, at 10:00 am, to celebrate this glorious event.



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Monday, 15 December 2014

Christmas in Melbourne

Flinders Street Station - Merry Christmas
When this comes out, you know it's Christmas
Having grown up in Adelaide I have become used to the standard events that are rolled out across the city during the festive season. It usually begins with the Christmas Pageant, a parade that winds its way through the city streets boasting floats, clowns, dancers, and marching bands, with the final float carrying Father Christmas to the magic cave (located now, I believe, in David Jones). The pageant (which this year was on 15th November) is considered to be the start of the Christmas trading period (which differs in places such as the United States, where Thanksgiving Day is generally when the season begins).
However, we have none of that in Melbourne. In fact, the first Christmas I was here all I could find were the Christmas Windows, a series of displays in the windows of Myer on the Bourke Street Mall. A part of me, upon seeing this, asked myself 'what? is that all?' and I decided to try to find out how else Melbourne celebrates this time of year (because there certainly wasn't going to be a pageant).
Myer Christmas Windows
This year it is Santa and the Three Bears

So, as I was wondering around Melbourne, trying to see how this city celebrates Christmas (because it seems that every city has it's own particular approach to this season - as I discovered not all of them has a pageant), I came across a dive bar.
Liberty Social Dive Bar
I looked really out of place down here in my suit
So, after stopping by for a $3.00 pot of some random beer (I think it was called Sailor Jerry - and apparently it was spiced as well), I continued my wanderings around to the City Square where I suddenly discovered where I could find Santa Claus.
Google Maps had it in the wrong place, so here is the street view


However this rather plain open space had suddenly had a makeover with the arrival of our friend from the North Pole.

Santa's Square
Those guards are probably to stop people making off with the presents
Santa's Hut
Unfortunately Santa was asleep when I came past.
Nativity Scene
At least they included the nativity scene
Well, that kept me occupied for all of five minutes (and most of that time was spent taking photos that I could post on the internet). So, having discovered where Santa was hiding here in Melbourne, I decided to call it a night, jumped on a train, and went to the pub for a beer (and it was a pretty decent pub at that).
However, while I have not hung around the city long enough for it to start this year, last year I spent Christmas Eve wandering around Melbourne to feel the vibe of the place (and may have gone and seen a movie as well, but I really can't remember). However, as I was walking past the Town Hall, this what I discovered:
 
 And if you are wondering, yes these lights are in full swing again this year.

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Thursday, 11 December 2014

Proverbs - Wisdom for the ages



Judgement of Solomon

As we were coming to the end of the year in our Bible study group, we were discussing whether we would stick to the standard curriculum, or whether we would branch out on our own for a couple of weeks. I suggested that we might consider having a look at one of my favourite books of the Bible, that being the book of Proverbs (and here is a link to the Hebrew version if you are really game, though it is a dual translation, so maybe that will help if you are keen on learning Hebrew). I then asked if I could lead the study, which the group kindly allowed me (though I won't be making a habit of it - I always prefer it when somebody else is leading the study because then I get to answer the questions).
Anyway, over the three weeks we met at our regular location in a lovely Victorian era cottage in one of the leafy suburbs of inner Melbourne (though due to an unpredictable event earlier in the year, we had to change location for one of the nights):


Victorian Houses
To protect the innocent, I've selected some random houses from a random suburb
So, after Hannah faithfully made us each a cup of tea (we all seem to have cups of tea in our group), we all sat around and began to discuss this wonderful part of the Bible:

Bible Study Group
Now that I think of it, this reminds me of reading time at primary school.
Once again thanking my Bible Study group, I would like to share what we all got out of this study.

What is the purpose of the Book of Proverbs?
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behaviour,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance—
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:1-7
We are quite lucky to have the first seven verses of Proverbs because not only does it set the context of the book, it gives us a valuable insight into how we should apply it to our lives. As you can see from the passage I have quoted above, the book is set out as a series of instructions given to a child by his father. However, it is also important to note that the father is a king, meaning that his child is a prince, quite possibly the crown prince. As such, while a lot of the advice that he gives the prince is going to be general advice that can apply to many of us, I feel that we need to keep this at the back of our mind.
The fact that the advice is the type of advice that a king would pass on to his son is actually exceedingly helpful to us living in the 21st Century as the advise would be of a much greater use than it would be if  we were say a farmer giving instruction to his child. In fact, if you want some advice from an ancient farmer there is always Hesiod's Works and Days.

What do we learn about wisdom? Proverbs 8 - 9:12
I have been using the term advice in my discussion above, however I feel that there is a difference between advice and wisdom. To me advice is generally something that is passed from one person to another, and it may not necessarily be good advice (for example, battery acid is good for hair loss would probably be considered bad advice). However, when we think of wisdom we seem to think of what would generally be good advice, yet wisdom doesn't entirely come through being taught by another person, but can also come through life experience. One of our group suggested that wisdom is not necessarily something that we can sit down and work out, but rather must come to us from elsewhere, either through trial and error, through watching others make decisions, and of course receiving advise from our elders.
It is interesting that twice in the passages I have referenced above is the phrase 'the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom'. I was a little baffled by that because how can we learn wisdom from something (or someone) of whom we are petrified? It was suggested that the term fear in these passages doesn't refer to the fear that we experience when we turn a corner and come face to face with a hungry tiger, but rather awe and respect from somebody who is in authority over us.

Lazy Tiger
He's probably having a rest after finishing his lunch.
Anyway, let us look a some proverbs to see what they say to us.

Proverbs 10:27: The fear of the Lord adds length to life,
                           But the years of the wicked are cut short.
The idea that we got out of this proverb was that 3000 years ago people were not as hygienic as they are now, and as such quite a few of the laws that were handed down on Mount Sinai related to actual cleanliness as well as spiritual cleanliness. For instance, it was suggested that the food laws focused on animals that if they were not prepared properly then diseases could be passed on to those eating the meat. By the time Jesus came around the Romans had occupied Palestine and as a culture the Romans were incredibly clean (much like us today). However, wisdom still plays a significant role in living a healthy lifestyle today, such as eating only chocolate for three months in a row is probably not going to assist you in living a long and fruitful life.


Proverbs 11:15: Whoever puts up security for a stranger will surely suffer,
                           but whoever refuses to shake hands in pledge is safe.

It is amazing how a single Bible verse can provoke a lot of discussion, and this is certainly one of those verses. When we read this one we discussed everything from personal finance to business management. Initially we discussed about going guarantor for somebody (that is when you sign a contract with a bank so that if the person taking out the loan doesn't pay it back then the bank comes after you), and then moved onto the idea of easy credit and investment decisions. In fact, this verse is simply not about signing a contract with a bank that you may regret, but actually putting up your money in any investment, whether it be for a friend opening up a shop to putting money into a hedge fund. We even discussed business, and how some businesses would give credit to people who ended up not being able to pay. When the business discovered that since most of its income had been on credit they were not able to pay their own creditors when they came knocking on the door.
Even in my own recent experience I have discovered the reality behind this simple verse. I recently invested some money into two blue-chip companies, one a diversified miner, the other an oil producer. Within a month both the price of oil and the price of iron ore collapsed, taking the value of these two companies with them. So what we learnt from this verse was not just going guarantor for a bank loan, but also investing our savings in any and everything from a dodgy start up to a multi-billion dollar company. Remember, the share price of Enron went from $90.56 in August 2000 to less that $0.12 on 11 January 2002


Proverbs 11:26: People curse the one who hoards grain,
                           but they pray God’s blessing on the one who is willing to sell.

Okay, when we got to this passage we discussed the issue as it related to Israel in the 10th century before Christ. However I would suggest that this issue is still alive and well today. We must remember the context of it being a king giving advice to his son, so it may not immediately appear to apply to us. What the verse is talking about is the practice of hoarding grain to artificially push up the price. In the ancient world, where you were not able to simply walk down to your local Woolworths (Safeway for those of you in Victoria) to buy a loaf of bread, food supply was much more at the mercy of the seasons. So, it is not suggesting that we don't store food for times when it may be scare, but rather keeping the grain in storage despite there being a demand for it due to it being, say, winter, or even in the middle of a drought.

Supermarket Shelves
There looks like there is plenty of food to go around here.

Granted, in our modern western culture, food is readily available, however market manipulation still occurs. One of the incidences is with regards to the stockmarket. A common practice is that brokers will deliberately hold back shares for popular floats to artificially inflate the price (I'm not sure what the practice is called, but if anybody can give me some examples that would be great).
We also see this happening in the housing market here in Australia, with investors purchasing real estate and leaving it empty. Okay, this is not necessarily because the owners are intentionally trying to force up the rental value of the property, but rather due to tax concessions that are gained through negative gearing. Still, it is having that effect. In fact, this practice is becoming so common in Australia that the middle class is being priced out of owning their own property and the lower income earners are being priced out of the rental market.

Godly Wisdom and the Humanist Philosophers

Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”. 1 Corinthians 3:18-19
I think at this stage I better move on from looking at specific proverbs and move on to the next topic, which is how we should respond to the wisdom of the world. I must admit that when I originally drafted this question I did not anticipate that people would not understand what I was getting at, however it is one of those questions that has been burning in my heart ever since I attended a church camp back in my university days to listen to the preacher rile against humanism for the whole week. So, the question that I have is: if wisdom is always pointing to God, and we are told not to rely on the wisdom of this age, then how do we discern what is godly wisdom and what isn't, and is there any scope for us to explore the ideas of the existentialists and the post-modernists (just to name a few)?
I guess the short answer to this question is that there is not necessarily anything wrong with reading the writings of the existentialists (especially considering that the father of existentialism, Soren Keirkegard, was a Christian), nor is there necessarily anything wrong with reading the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, George Bernard Shaw, or even Samuel Beckett. However, the danger arrives when we begin to elevate this writing about that of scripture, especially where it contradicts scripture. No doubt Paul the Apostle was familiar with the philosophers of Ancient Greece to the extent that he was able to engage with the people of Athens.


Shaw, Sartre, and Beckett
See if you can guess who is who.
Correct me, if I'm wrong, but I suspect that the worldly wisdom being spoken of here is not so much the theoretical philosophies of the Greeks, Romans, and modern humanists, but rather referring to the way the world does things. For instance consider these popular sayings: if it feels good, then do it; or if it doesn't hurt anybody, then it isn't wrong. In many ways our perception is limited, so we may not realise the damage that our actions are causing to ourselves and to others. Granted, taking drugs may feel good at the time, but what is it doing to your psyche, or your relationships? What about the inevitable hangover or come down? In one instance, it may deliver short term pleasure, but in a lot of causes the short term pleasure translates into long term pain.

Adultery
I don't want to dwell too much upon this topic because there are some controversial views regarding relationships that a lot of Christians hold, and I really don't want to give anybody the wrong idea about where I stand and what I think. Therefore I will be restricting my discussion to adultery rather than to sexual relationships at large (and also because I have already written a chunk on this post, and there is still a bit more to go).

Couple holding hands
I had to add a picture to this section
So, ignoring the controversial topics, what is generally understood by society at large, whether the relationship is one of marriage, or simply de-facto, is that cheating on your partner is basically not kosher. To me it comes down to a question of trust, whether that trust comes under the marriage vows, or it is simply an understanding that comes about from a long term relationship. When somebody has an affair there is a breach of trust and it works to undermine the relationship because of the partners feels betrayed. Somebody suggested that it also involves the deep sense of intimacy that occurs within a sexual relationship, and people really do not feel comfortable when that sense of intimacy is shared with another person. I have even seen it myself where a single act of infidelity has brought about an immediate end to the relationship (one friend of mine said that after his girlfriend had an affair, everytime he was with her he kept on seeing this other person).
However, Proverbs seems to paint a rather dangerous picture of the adulteress (Proverbs 5, Proverbs 6:20-35, and Proverbs 7:1-27), but the question was raised by one of my pastors as to why the woman is pictured as the villain. There are a couple of reasons that come to my mind:
  1. It Takes Two to Tango: Just because the woman is painted badly does not mean that the man is the innocent victim. The man makes a choice to succumb to the adulteress's whiles, and because of this he simply cannot be painted as a victim. If there is a victim, it is the partners in the relationship.
  2. The Structure of the Book: As mentioned previously, Proverbs is written as a father giving advice to his son. We simply cannot read the book and see it as an attack against women – it is not. These concepts are meant to be interpreted and applied laterally, which means that an adulterer can be just as cunning and dangerous as the adulteress.
The final thing I wish to raise is the time in which the book was written. While it is true that it is just as easy to be caught out in an adulterous affair these days (thanks to the smell of perfume, the late nights, the mysterious phone calls) back in those days people did not live in mega-cities. At the time the book was written, being around 1000 to 800 BC, people lived in small villages where everybody knew everybody else. Thus if people were discovered having an affair it would tar the reputation of those involved. In fact it would probably not be all that easy to live in the village after being discovered. Consider some of the stories in the gospels (John 4:1-26, John 8:2-11)  – everybody knew the adulterers. Even in Jerusalem, which was the largest city in the region, people would still pretty much know most of the other people who lived there – there was really nowhere to hide.

Bad influences

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.

They are a garland to grace your head
and a chain to adorn your neck.

My son, if sinful men entice you,
do not give in to them.
If they say, “Come along with us;
let’s lie in wait for innocent blood,
let’s ambush some harmless soul;
let’s swallow them alive, like the grave,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
we will get all sorts of valuable things
and fill our houses with plunder;
cast lots with us;
we will all share the loot”—
my son, do not go along with them,
do not set foot on their paths;
for their feet rush into evil,
they are swift to shed blood.
How useless to spread a net
where every bird can see it!
These men lie in wait for their own blood;
they ambush only themselves!
Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain;
It takes away the life of those who get it. Proverbs 1:8-19

Our discussion on the final week of our studies on Proverbs we looked at the warnings against unsavoury characters. It was interesting that when I asked the group to talk about people who have been influential in their lives most of the discussion involved good influences. That is probably because the bad influences are not worth talking about. I know that I have had a lot of bad influences in my life (whom I foolishly followed), however I would probably not share too much about them either (which I don't believe that I did).
Anyway, things may have changed since the days of bandits and highwaymen, however we can still get dragged into bad company today - I know I have. Mind you, while many of us may not be encouraged to rob a bank, we will still encounter people who will suggest that we do things that are not really all that legal - such as stealing from our boss, lying on our tax return, or even smoking ice.

Proverbs 13: 10: Where there is strife, there is pride,
                            but wisdom is found in those who take advice.


Proverbs 15:2: The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge,
                         but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.


Well, the above two proverbs do not necessarily contradict each other, but they do make us pause to think. A wise person takes advice, however this is not just any old advice, this is taking advice from somebody who is wise. They say that everybody wants to give advice, but nobody wants to receive it, though the problem is that because we have all these people giving us advice, how are we to discern what is good advice and what is bad advice?

Bag Pipe Cookie Monster
Not necessarily an example of a fool
Well, once again the book of Proverbs comes to our rescue. Proverbs has a lot to say about fools and their behaviour, and for a while I thought it was simply saying 'do not be like this type of person because this type of person is not wise'. However, is it possible that it is also painting a picture of a type of person whose advice we should take with a grain of salt? What would be the point of listening to advice when the advice that we are listening to is coming from the mouth of a fool? So, let us see what characteristics Proverbs gives a fool:
  • They slander people (Proverbs 11:9);
  • They gossip (Proverbs 11:12);
  • They react against wise instruction (Proverbs 15:5);
  • They speak and act without thinking (Proverbs 14:16);
  • They are rebellious (Proverbs 17:11);
  • They have no real sense of morality (Proverbs 10:22).
The main issue we ended up discussing was gossip and slander because this is something that we all are exposed to, and are all tempted to participate. I know that I have been really bad when it comes to gossip and slander. Look, even the church is not immune to this type of behaviour, and it is really hard not to get involved. In fact, as I am sure many of us have discovered, if we don't participate we may discover that we end up becoming an outcast (or even the target of the gossip).
The reason that I suggest this is not just because we refuse to speak badly of other people, but because not participating in gossip also suggests that we should also be reaching out to the people whom are being gossiped about and showing the same love and friendship that we show everybody else. That can be hard as well because we may find ourselves being out of the 'cool' circle by doing this. I remember when I started at new high school that a friend of mine pointed to the members of the chess club and told me that I should stay away from them because they were not 'the cool people'. As it turned out, the chess club were actually the wise ones while the 'cool circle' turned out to be the bad influences.
Wait a minute, with all this talk about fools, doesn't that contradict what Jesus says in the gospels (Matthew 5:22)? I raised that very question because I was not really comfortable going around labelling people as fools. Well, as was suggested, this may not be all that contradictory because in the Gospel Jesus is talking about lashing out at somebody in anger. This is not what is necessarily happening the Proverbs because these verses are painting a picture of what we shouldn't be, and helping us identify the type of person whom we probably should be taking advice from.

Laziness
As I was preparing this Bible study I felt that we should also look at what proverbs describes as the sluggard, otherwise known as a 'lazy person'. I was not sure whether they would fall into the category of a bad influence or not, but I felt it was a subject that we should discuss anyway. So, while Proverbs may say a few things about laziness, it certainly isn't anywhere near as much as the fool. Some of the statements are simply ludicrous, such as this one:

Proverbs 19:24: The sluggard buries his hand in the dish
                           and will not even bring it back to his mouth.


Apparently the sluggard is so lazy that they find it hard to even lift a spoon from the plate to their mouth!

Lazy Cat
You can't get any lazier than this.
Mind you, it is not necessarily poor people that Proverbs is warning (though there is a group of people who claim that the only reason people are poor is because they are lazy, and no doubt they refer to some of these passages to justify this all encompassing statement) because in those days (and also in many developing countries around the world today) if you don't work, you don't eat. 
However, let us consider these statements from the perspective of a king giving instruction to crown prince. In this context there is actually a much greater temptation to be lazy, especially when everything is done for you. Could this not also be the case in our modern, western, society with all of our labour saving devices? By having machines do everything for us gives us more free time, however how do we use this time we are given? Do we go use our time to do good things and be creative, or do we simply sit down and watch endless hours of television?
As for being influenced by lazy people, I suggest that there is one way it can happen. Say, for instance, you are living with some people and the people with whom you are living never do any housework. It is possible in that situation (and I know because I have been in that situation) that because the people with whom you are living aren't doing anything, you won't do anything either, simply because the attitude of 'why should I be doing all of the work when they are sitting down all day watching television' develops. So, yes, it is possible to be influenced by lazy people.

Interacting with unsavoury characters
So, just before Jesus ascended, he commanded his followers to go out and make disciples of the nations (Matthew 20:16-20). While we could bicker over exact interpretations of this passage, what is generally accepted (at least in the churches that I have attended) is that Jesus is telling us Christians to go out and interact with the world and the share our beliefs with them. So, the big question arises, should we be interacting with unsavoury characters?
It can be a difficult matter, though we did discuss whether we should avoid certain people. Personally, I suggested that we need to be wise as to who we associate with, and there are people that some can associate with that others probably should avoid. However, others in the group suggested that we probably shouldn't be discriminatory. I agree to an extent, however I do believe that there is a catch. For instance, a reformed drug user probably shouldn't be rushing off to spend their time with drug users. The reason I say that is because there is the possibility that they might backslide into their previous habits. Look, there are people who are strong enough to be able to resist that temptation, and sometimes the best person in these situations is the person who can understand the culture that they are attempting to reach. However, my personal advice would always be err on the side of caution. If you know that you can be tempted by associating with certain people, then maybe working with those people may not be the wisest of choices.

Tiger Picture Source: Colin M.L. Burnett use permitted under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 unported
Enron Stock Price graph source: Nehrams2020 use permitted under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 unported
Supermarket Shelves source: lyzadanger use permitted under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Couple Holding Hands source: lyzadanger use permitted under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Lazy Cat source: Simplicius use permitted under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 unported


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